A festival should be outlandish, so bring on the dancing nuns
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 04 September 1999
Suddenly we can't stop revelling. What's happened to us? Time was when the only annual street event north of Aylesbury was the Whit Walks: a hundred famished working girls in pink-sherbet party dresses processioning under banners dedicated to the Virgin. We made our own fun in those days. We stood on the pavement and waved little flags, whether we practised Virginolatry or not. Then came the Manchester University Medical School Rag with its bed races down Corporation Street and its interns kitted out as fantasy nurses in stockings and high heels. Racier than a Whit Walk, but still not exactly carnivalesque. Ditto the burgeoning bank holidays, each a desolating blank in our social calendar which we filled, if the sun shone, by motoring up to Rawtenstall in the forlorn hope of finding a tea-shop open. And now, as though the souls of the inhabitants of this bashful island have succumbed in the night to aliens from the planet Saturnalia, it's all steel bands, bare breasts, and men in glitter posing-pouches.
Or it is wherever I'm not. Given that I had to be in Liverpool for a table tennis tournament anyway, I opted for the Gay Mardi Gras just up the road in Manchester. Big mistake. Things may well have hotted up in the beer tents later, but the processionals were disappointing by virtue of their virtue. I don't know whether more than one alien from the planet Saturnalia has taken me over in my sleep, or whether there always was an element of libertinage lurking in my character; either way I find that these days I require more or less total nudity, an unacceptable level of public lewdness and a constant stream of sacrilege and blasphemy to put me in the party mood. What I should have guessed, knowing the primness of the Manchester city fathers, was that the Gay Mardi Gras would turn out to be just another Whit Walk with feathers. I had more fun at the Merseyside Table Tennis Grand Prix. Not exactly an orgiastic happening itself, but at least the players knew why they were there, raised a sweat, abandoned self-control, and went home jubilant or desolated or both. And you can't ask more from a knees-up than that.
In the end a festival must be faithful to itself. Which is why reports of John Humphrys giving the controller of BBC1 a roasting at the Edinburgh Television Festival made satisfying reading. Television Festivals are places where BBC1 controllers are meant to be turned on a sacrificial spit. And if the most fearsome torturer broadcasting can come up with is John Humphrys, then that too measures the plight of the industry and prolongs the agony. Death by small persistent puppy.
Reports of John Humphrys appearing at the Edinburgh Literary Festival, however, raise matters of more serious concern. For John Humphrys is not a literary figure. The fact that he is rumoured to want to write a novel does not alter that. Everybody wants to write a novel. Most people already have. The only person I know who has not so far written a novel is my mother, and she is spending more time at her word processor than she used to.
It is also rumoured that John Humphrys feels a special affinity for the literary world. I can't say I have noticed that on his morning radio programme. I'm not complaining; I do not make a habit of tuning into Humphrys before breakfast in the hope of hearing him evincing literary affinities. Frankly, I would not expect them of him. Humphrys' sphere is current affairs, and current affairs is to literature what chalk is to cheese. Any writer who has ever been lured into a current affairs discussion, on radio or on television, will tell you that the experience resembles nothing so much as being kidnapped by headless automata and deposited on the Moon. The Moon, I say, not the planet Saturnalia where, while the population may be wordless, they do at least acknowledge bodily resemblance to us. Not a twitch of a thumb in common, though, when a writer meets a current affairs person, not so much as a mote in the other's eye.
I did Newsnight once, suffering a species of intergalactic non-communication interview with a person whose name sounded like Thirsty Work and who thought I was raving mad. The problem was that as she was a current affairs person her entire auricular system was wired only for the reception of views. And novelists, as you don't need me to remind you, do not have views.
Because they are necessarily unintuitive, undivided and monotonic, views are antithetical to literature. They are also easier to hold than literature is to write, which is why they outnumber literature by millions to one. We are drowning in views. If anything will finish us a species, views will. Hence the importance of a literary festival. It's crucial that we celebrate what we don't have very much of. By the same token, we should hold any literary festival which promiscuously opens its tents to the antithesis of literature - to view-holders - guilty not just of wasting an opportunity, but of treason.
John Humphrys may be good at what he does, but his is the familiar voice of our daily terrestrial existence. The function of festivals is to be outlandish, to relieve us from the drone of the familiar, to throw a party for strange phenomena, such as a dancing nun, an engine-driver in a cocktail dress, or a novelist.
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